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Local Hispanic Immigrants Risking Injury, Death To Work

By Nancy L. Othón and Mike Clary, Staff Writers

December 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 SO FL SUN SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Every weekday morning, men willing to work for hourly wages few others would accept gather on a Lake Worth sidewalk in hopes of landing a job most people wouldn't want.

The bulk of these day laborers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. They are in their 20s and 30s, and many entered the United States illegally. For $10 an hour or less they will plant trees, shingle a roof, or serve as general laborers on a construction site.

Rarely do the job-seekers ask about working conditions, risk or insurance. "We think about God, and we think about the money," said a Guatemalan named Fidel, 31, too nervous about his illegal status in the country to agree to having his last name published. "We don't think about the bad."

Yet the bad happens with disturbing regularity in South Florida, especially to undocumented, often-uninsured Hispanic immigrants who have become vital to the area's economy, particularly the booming construction industry. More fatal injuries occur in the construction industry than in any other sector of the nation's workplace, and Hispanic workers are at greatest risk of being killed or injured, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The deaths of Gregorio Ruiz Aviles, 31, and Lauro Marquez Hernandez, 23, briefly called attention to the problem. The two Broward County men -- both undocumented Mexicans -- were crushed to death in the July collapse of a three-story Hobe Sound building on which they were working. Five other men were injured.

A construction worker in Miami and one in Hollywood also were killed during the summer; both were Hispanic.

While the possibility of injury or death is high, undocumented construction workers frequently also are at risk of having no financial support if an accident does happen, although federal law requires companies to carry workers' compensation and liability insurance.

Days after the Martin County collapse, the state levied a $2.4 million fine against a Boca Raton firm, Macs Construction and Concrete Inc., for failing to buy workers' compensation insurance for the two men. And last month, Macs owner Richard J. Meccariello Jr. was arrested and charged with a felony for allegedly failing to carry workers' compensation insurance.

The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation into the Martin County collapse that is expected to be wrapped up this month . In August, OSHA announced a statewide effort to inspect construction sites. In October an attorney representing the workers' families in Mexico sued Macs, the developer of the condo project and several others, claiming negligence.

Yet five months after the deaths of Ruiz and Marquez, few public officials, employers, workers and immigrant advocates express much hope that change would come soon in an industry where undocumented workers willingly take any job they can get.

"It is easy to say we have to crack down on illegals, but this is a massive problem and it's very difficult to get a handle on it," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach. "If we had a work stoppage of all illegals, you may have the collapse of an economy."

Indeed, with as many as 15 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many toiling in industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and hospitality as well as construction, many segments of the economy depend on these low-wage employees. And although public opinion polls find Americans troubled by illegal immigration, major reform is not high on the political agenda.

Construction worker Justino "Peyo" Pacheco Perez, whose cousin was critically injured in the Hobe Sound collapse, thinks it's up to American consumers to force reforms. "People who buy homes don't ever think about any of this," Pacheco Perez said as he recounted the hard labor that goes into building a home. "People just want to live in these luxury homes and don't think about all the sweat and tears that went into the construction of the house. They just want the cheapest and best price for the homes."

The reality is that low-wage labor is beneficial to both the workers and employers. Often supporting families in their native lands, immigrants need the work, while many employers in search of cheap labor knowingly hire workers who provide false names and Social Security numbers.

"The absolute atrocity in this is the employer knows they are illegal," workers' compensation attorney Brett Findler said. "And when these people come in, whether they are Guatemalan or Mexican, and we ask them, `Did the employer ask you for papers?' they say, `No, they didn't ask for anything.'"

Anti-immigration groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, say the employers should do more than ask for papers.

"We think that the way to discourage this is to ask the employers to verify the work documents [of workers]," said Jack Martin, FAIR special projects director in Washington, D.C. "The problem is employers are able to get off the hook for accountability at the present time because they say they didn't know their employees were illegal."

But contractors and other employers contend that it is sometimes impossible to know who is legal and who may be covered by insurance. If, for example, a contractor hires workers through a leasing company, that firm is obligated to provide insurance.

"If I'm [using] a subcontractor, there is no way for me to know if the labor he brings onto the job from a leasing company is insured," said homebuilder Bruce Malasky, president of the Goldcoast Builders Association in West Palm Beach. "And if there is larceny in their blood, they are going to get you."

OSHA area director Luis R. Santiago said employers continue to use illegal labor because they know the workers will not talk or complain and will follow instructions.

"It is Mexican workers getting killed. They are doing the most dangerous jobs," Santiago said.

Despite the hardships, they still come. Mexican Consulate officials in Miami say they know why. "They keep arriving here because there's job opportunities and there's a possibility to enhance their economic situation," Mexican Consul Jorge Lomonaco said. "They're willing to risk it all with the goal of betterment."

Unable to speak English well, unfamiliar with U.S. safety requirements, and yet willing to perform dangerous jobs on rooftops or in deep trenches, these workers are dying and being injured at rates much higher than their American-born counterparts. In 2002, 25 percent of fatal workplace incidents in the U.S. involved either workers who did not speak English or a supervisor unable to communicate with employees, according to OSHA.

In the two-year period ending Sept. 30, more than half the 95 workplace fatalities recorded in the 10-county South Florida area happened on construction sites, according to OSHA. Of those killed, 55 percent were Hispanic. Recently, OSHA began tracking the immigration status of workers injured or killed on the job. And although that data has not yet been made public, Santiago said the early evidence indicates most of the Hispanic workers who have been killed on the job in South Florida recently were immigrants who did not speak English.

Santiago said that since the summer fatalities, his agency has stepped up efforts to provide Spanish-language programs on workplace safety.

For job hopefuls who gather each morning on the streets of Lake Worth, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, or who find work through an informal word-of-mouth grapevine as effective as the Internet, the money is all. Even a $7-an-hour job doing cleanup on a construction site will earn a worker more in a week than he could make in two months in Sonora or Chihuahua.

Those who can show some skill in carpentry or finishing concrete can make twice that much.

Tragedies can make some workers cautious. Herman, a 26-year-old Guatemalan in Lake Worth who also didn't want his full name used because of his residency status, said hearing about the construction deaths convinced him to stick to landscaping jobs. "They take advantage of us because we don't speak English," he said. "They don't have a conscience or a spirit."

But countryman Miguel Angel, 33, said he accepts any job offered, trusting that his American employers would take care of him if he were hurt. "Of course they have insurance," he said. "Of course they would pay for my bills."

The state Department of Financial Services' workers' compensation division conducts random sweeps at construction sites to ensure compliance with workers' compensation laws. So far this year, the agency has issued more than 2,200 stop-work orders to companies -- the majority construction companies -- that weren't carrying insurance for all of their workers.

Local advocates for immigrants say most workers, here legally or not, come to the United States not knowing they are entitled to insurance coverage. "I don't think they really know the insurance system," said Lucio Perez-Reynozo, executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth. "They have no expectation but to get paid that day only."

Employers are obligated by law to inform employees about benefits. But many Hispanic workers are reluctant to ask questions, especially if they are here illegally.

"There are also cultural issues," said Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico. "There is a respect for authority. Whatever they are told to do, they will do."

For years, undocumented workers have toiled on construction sites undetected. It's not that no one is watching, federal authorities say, but rather priorities have changed. Though the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act allows the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to enforce sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, Sept. 11, 2001, changed the focus of the agency when it comes to undocumented workers, said John Woods, assistant special agent in charge in the Miami office.

Authorities have concentrated their resources on employers in areas of national interest such as airports, seaports, and nuclear power plants, Woods said.

"We're still going after employers violating the law, it's just different circumstances," Woods said.

So a tip about illegal residents working construction at a townhouse development isn't given the same weight as an investigative lead about illegal workers on the job at an airport.

Even when a construction worker dies, criminal prosecution is rare in South Florida.

Several recent South Florida cases have been discussed with the U.S. Labor Department's solicitor general, Santiago said. The solicitor general in turn presented some of those cases to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution. Yet it has been years since a Florida case led to a federal criminal prosecution.

Three years ago, a Pompano Beach contractor pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in what was called the first criminal prosecution in a South Florida workplace fatality. Richard Fowler was sentenced to 10 years of probation following the 1996 death of Oscar Escobar, 27, buried in a trench he was digging at a Margate nursing home. There have been no prosecutions since.


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